James Baldwin’s voice rises again in I Am Not Your Negro

James Baldwin (center) was acclaimed for his insights on humanityJames Baldwin (center) was acclaimed for his insights on humanity

We like to tell ourselves that our society has improved, that racism and the legacy of slavery are a thing of the past.

But seeing Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s divided America or, closer to home – the Charter of Values debate and mosque killings in Quebec city – makes it hard to ignore the fact that suspicion, fear, and hatred are still with us, causing us to see our fellow human beings as “the other.”

Ten years in the making, the film is based on the first and only 30 pages of James Baldwin’s last book, Remember this House, started in 1979 but left unfinished at his death in 1987.

Baldwin wrote of his friends, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, – three very different men who demanded justice and equality for black Americans during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. All three were gunned down before they turned 40.

The film uses archival footage – clips from Hollywood with Gary Cooper and John Wayne “heroically” killing “Indians,” as well as scenes of violence during headline-making race riots. A sudden shift, from Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s to Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 is a sobering call to awareness – that all is not well in the 21st century even though America did finally elect a black president.

Baldwin’s written words are heard throughout the film, spoken by Samuel L. Jackson and creating a powerful sense of the author’s presence. But it is Baldwin speaking spontaneously and unrehearsed, whether debating William F. Buckley or conversing with Dick Cavett on TV, which is so gripping and inspiring.

His ideas, so eloquently expressed, are very much about civil rights and at the same time philosophical and relevant beyond that context and time.

He steered clear of political organizations and saw himself more as a writer bearing witness rather than being a spokesman for a cause. He did not believe, nor did he want black youth to believe, he said, that “all white people are evil.”

He saw the problem we call “racism” not as one of race, but one of ignorance, complicit denial, and intellectual laziness. He said Americans prefer fantasy to reality and calls the white picket-fence illusionary world of Doris Day musicals a “most grotesque appeal to innocence.”

“Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” he said.  What Baldwin wants us to face is the potential destruction of our own humanity if we continue to dehumanize each other. He says the destiny of black people in America is simply America’s destiny. He does not blame but challenges us to look at our own assumptions and the true cost of the American Dream lifestyle.

Raoul Peck’s Oscar Nominated film I Am Not Your Negro premiered as part of the RIDM+ series and continues at the Cineplex Forum and Cinema du Parc.

On the last Thursday of March and April, the Montreal International Documentary Festival presents screenings of major documentaries at Cinema du Parc. Info: ridm.qc.ca

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